The People of The City
Looking for something that smells good in Houston? Snub the corpse flower & hangwith master roaster Ken Palmer
There's something brewing in Houston, and it smells like nothing I've ever encountered. No, I'm not talking about the punctuality-challenged corpse flower at the Houston Museum of Natural Science — I'm talking about Java Pura, a start-up high-end coffee brand that aims to change the way Houstonians think about coffee.
The man behind the mission is Ken Palmer, a former Alaskan ice-fisherman turned master roaster. You might not see him out and about (he has to attend to hand-roasting Java Pura's beans, and he's not much of a people person, anyway) but it's his taste buds that select what's hands down the best coffee you can get in Houston.
(For some context, specialty coffee is made up of the top 10 percent of beans, in terms of quality. Palmer buys and roasts only beans within the top two percent of that 10 percent.)
A native of Portland, Oreg., (Palmer got paid $100 to drive a car to Alaska from Oregon, and decided to stay to work on the Alaskan Pipeline before taking up crabbing and fishing) Palmer spent 10 years splitting his time between Alaska and Hawaii, where he spent the fishing off-season. It was in Hawaii that he took a job at a coffee processing plant to pass the time and began teaching himself how to roast coffee beans.
In 1987 Palmer made an acquaintance that would straighten out his life's path, at least a little, and point it to coffee. Alfred Peet, the founder of revered Peet's Coffee & Tea, was in Kona for a cupping contest. He took a liking to our
restless well-traveled, tattooed commercial fisherman and the two struck up a friendship, spending a few weeks in Hawaii each year roasting beans and tasting coffee for hours together each day.
Palmer says his mentor's taste was so accurate, he once detected a trace of cinnamon in the water supply used to brew a single cup of coffee.
After three years Palmer took Peet's advice to open his own shop, and quit fishing for good to move back home to Portland and focus on coffee full-time. He opened BJ's Coffee, which still exists today under his ex-wife and will likely be taken over by his son. The consulting jobs Palmer picked up when his marriage ended sent him all over the coffee-growing world — Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico and Ethiopia (to name a few), where he stayed two years.
Palmer changed scenery again in 1997 when he moved to Houston on a whim with no intention of staying, and wound up in the employ of Java Pura when he saw opportunity in our less-than-sophisticated coffee palates.
"Houston is 15 years behind in the coffee industry," Palmer says. "It's a wide-open market."
How Palmer ended up at Java Pura is a story in its own, but it took "running off to Costa Rica" for a couple months to convince the bosses to let him roast.
The rest, as they say, is coffee history. Java Pura, whose offices are tucked away in an unlikely warehouse space off Chimney Rock, has so far focused on catering and supplying coffee to businesses, but plans to open a storefront later this year (joy!!). Until then, you can find Palmer hand roasting hundreds of pounds of coffee a day while he works to break the bosses into his coffee clique.
He's bringing them to the Roaster's Guild Retreat in August — we just hope he comes back.